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My initiation into entomophagy – the eating of insects – was the first step in disengagement from the habits of a lifetime, the system of taste that holds a human being together from childhood. This is different for Europeans, and indeed, most Westerners, compared to those who grew up in Asia and areas in which the consumption of insects is a sustainable, straightforward superfood. I was raised on Cadbury’s chocolate and crumpets; so the idea of eating insects was as far from my culinary leanings as possible.
Later in life, while living in Southeast Asia, I sampled a little more, followed by fully indulging myself in a creepy-crawly diet – outside of drunken dares. Food in the region is a contrasting flavour-wheel, zipping across sweet, sour, bitter, spicy… raw and cooked.
Insects now, of course, are eaten almost everywhere. René Redzepi and the Nordic Food Lab played a significant role in popularising their consumption. Last year on his Instagram page, Redzepi wrote that a honey ant was, “the best thing I ate in 2017” going on to explain the taste in more detail, “their abdomen, the size of a small grape, is full of sweet and sour nectar. It’s seriously amazing,” he wrote.
A honey ant, this was the best thing i ate in 2017. They’re basically overfeed ants, that carry the burden as food storage for the colony, in case of a dry spell. Their abdomen, the size of a small grape is full of a sweet and sour nectar. It’s seriously amazing. A traditional food source in some rural part of Mexico and Australia
In Indonesia, they make a snack out of curried dragonflies called sky prawns. In Thailand, they make rot duan, a dish of deep-fried bamboo worms. In Mexico, modern restaurants are renovating an ancient tradition by adding ants, grasshoppers, and worms to their iconic dishes. But worms and insects have been cancelled, by biblical decree, from the diets of most Caucasians.
For me, it was in Cambodia where I was introduced to an expansive offering of creepy-crawly varieties and a deep-dive into a wealth of strange insect activity. It took only a few seconds of perusing the wares in a Phnom Penh food market before realising what the trays were filled with. A few signs displayed names in English, but you don’t have to be a professor in entomology to see that a snake is a snake and a cockroach is a cockroach. The vendor behind the cart removed an aerosol from under the wagon and squeezed the nozzle, releasing a spritz of liquid grease. “Special sauce?” he asked, spraying another mist of lubricant over my order of half-a-dozen giant water-bugs.
Cambodia, perhaps more than any other country, actively serves and promotes the eating of insects. Even before ants were considered trendy, popping up on menus in Copenhagen, London and Melbourne, the cuisine of Cambodia was centred around edible creepy-crawlies. The country had suffered under Khmer Rouge, the radical militia who imposed collective farms and burnt cookbooks, and the population, forced into poverty, were required to feed on anything they could.
Today, Cambodia continues to eat and embrace insects. They are more than a street food staple here, more than a culinary gimmick for tourists, and can be found in markets and on restaurant menus all around the country. According to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), insects are the future for world food security. Here’s a run through of some of the most popular – but not always most delicious – examples of the Cambodian creepy-crawly diet.
Firstly, the positives: maggots are tiny little chubby worms that are widely available and, with some seasoning and a dash of soy, go down in handfuls very easily – just throw ‘em back like they were popcorn.
In fact, served with Cambodian pickled limes, they’re really rather pleasant. In Siem Reap's vibrant night market, you purchase them by the weight. You can also find them deep-fried with chillies and spring onions.
If you’re a sufferer of arachnophobia, then it’s best to take a wide berth from any vendor or restaurant serving Tarantulas. Even dead, these large, furry beasts are still obliviously spiders, their legs outstretched and the plump body bursting with gooey innards.
They’re mostly deep-fried and served with an accompanying dipping sauce. For me, it was a tamarind sauce that masked much of the natural flavour – undoubtedly a good thing! At Romdeng restaurant in Phnom Penh, staff even show you the live specimens before cooking, should you wish to get to know your meal personally. Other popular ways to prepare Tarantulas in Cambodia, is to bread them before deep-frying.
Eating snake is nothing new in Southeast Asia, I actually sampled my first serpent in Bangkok, several years back, a local chef showing me how to pull sinewy strips from the long, squidgy body. In Cambodia though, the water snake is prepared differently, coiled into an “S” shape and speared, making it easy to hold and eat while walking.
Using your fingers, you can pull away parts of the soft flesh which is like some strange mix of both meat and fish, delicate and a little briny. In Skun, Cambodia’s dedicated insect market, 70km from Phnom Penh, they serve the snake in a variety of ways; including deep-frying the head, marinating and grilling, and drying overnight to form a crunchy skin.
Like maggots, crickets are deep-fried. Some street vendors fry them in oil only while others add chillies, spring onions and even chopped peanuts. Despite their considerable size, they contain fewer guts and innards than maggots, caterpillars and larvae, so there’s not the expected burst of stomach pus or a pop of the belly. They’re more spiny, a crunchy exoskeleton with two sizeable back legs.
The taste is not impressive, but when they’re deep-fried, the skin does sizzle, and it becomes like crunchy fried chicken. It’s also naturally salty so pairs well with a beer.
Big and fat but ultimately plan and disappointing on the palate. Cockroaches have a rather bland diet, feeding on starchy products but also seeking out hair, dirt, dust and decaying matter. Naturally, this doesn’t make for a pleasing snack and what you get is a bland smoosh of guts and shell; a noticeable crunch and a release of grease and bile. Best to boil, deep-fry, then cover the taste with “special sauce”.
In Siem Reap, chef Mork Mengly – a man primarily responsible for reinventing Cambodian cuisine – prepared me a unique course of red ants mixed with prahok – a fermented fish paste – with sugar, chillies and lime.
The ants are sour, popping in the mouth like fine caviar, and there’s a wallop of heat from the of crushed chillies. Ants are perhaps the most recognised insect ingredient, already widely used and accepted across Europe, but this particular recipe, with the use of prahok, adds a significant pong to proceedings, giving off the scent of long-aged Limburger cheese.
Farmers in Cambodia and across Southeast Asia, trail nets through fields of rice to catch grasshoppers. They feed on plants and foliage, absorbing much of what they eat and making for an insect of considerable taste and freshness. They also fry-up rather well, so the result is a bug with a satisfying crunchy texture, and because they are skinny and light, are sold in cups or bags of up to a dozen.
Locusts were once a prevalent source of protein and were in such abundance, that they are mentioned in the Bible and the Old Testament because they were – and still are – a common edible crop pest. Across much of Southeast Asia, they remain one of the most popular and cheapest of street snacks.
Giant Water Bugs
Possibly the most significant and most challenging of Cambodian creepy-crawlies; the giant water bug is a challenge for most who haven’t seen the insect before. If you’re creative, then I suppose you could compare them to a jumbo prawn, but in shape and shell only. A dollar bought me a plastic bag full of bugs, around 14. This stumped me, and I had to ask the vendor how best to prepare the giant bugs before consuming?
You can’t merely throw these gritters in your mouth. The trick is to pull off the wings, then bit off the head. Having proceeded to copy the vendor, I was ready to consume the decapitated bug right up until the point that the vendor then squeezed the body between his fingers, so a light-grey pus oozed from the body, which he then slurped, pressing harder against the body so that the guts ejected from the slippy, headless corpse. Much like a prawn, the vendor sucked out the guts in pure delight.